S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Only the Lonely,” Park thinks about loneliness and looks back on a couple of his marriages.
I just read an article by a neuroscientist who claimed that: “Loneliness is a universal thing. If I were to ask people on the street, ‘Do you know what it means to be lonely?’ probably 99 or 100% of people would say yes.”
I’m not sure I would, though. I certainly miss sex as I get older and (if possible) more isolated, but the company of others? It’s fine when it happens but I don’t seem to miss it much.
Which doesn’t diminish my love or appreciation for friends (it would have been a far lesser life without them), and I’ve certainly been head-over-heels “in love” (read: lust) numerous times. But being by myself and wishing someone was there with me? I’m just not made that way, even if I sometimes wish I were.
How could I not when everywhere I go it’s Marriage Land? I had many friends and acquaintances (not to mention customers) in Portland, for instance, but was virtually the only single person I knew. Then I moved to Port Townsend and it was even worse.
How do these longtime couples stand it? How do you wake up decade after decade with the same character next to you? (I lived with a woman for four years in the early Eighties and consider it one of the major accomplishments of my life.) No, when it comes to company I seem to be missing the need quotient. Perhaps, as that neuroscientist speculated, there really are loneliness neurons and mine were fried by those childhood brain diseases. So now I look at married people (never having wanted children of my own, either) and of course I’m mystified, it seems like such a bad deal to me.
Not that I didn’t give it a try myself. I was thinking the other day about the apartment Patti and I rented in Hollywood in 1977; we were newly married and this would be our first place without roommates. It was the lower half of a two-story stucco and featured a spacious bedroom, a large kitchen and living room and generous light from the windows. (We’d rented it from fellow Scientologists.)
And except for a bent kitchen chair I found in a dumpster (we had a pet Whippet named Percy, and I liked to race him against Filipino dogs in the alley out back) … there was never a stick of furniture. The sole household items, in fact, were a single fork and blanket. (We slept under the latter on the carpet, ready to flee like squatters when the real tenants arrived.)
I don’t remember thinking it was an odd or unusual situation, because it’s how I would have lived by myself. (All I’ve ever needed is a roof and a toilet that flushes; that apartment, with its wall-to-wall carpeting and window blinds, seemed like a penthouse to me.)
Patti could have done with more comforts, I suppose, or at least hustled up some herself, but that’s what I liked about her, i.e. she let me be me. This was more about indifference than support, in retrospect, but given that I, in turn, let her be her—a Scientology devotee who spent more time saving the world than our marriage—we were equally complicit. Throw in the twelve-hour days and three different shifts I worked as a Western Union supervisor and we saw less and less of each other over time.
Which is why we lasted as long as we did (a whole six months). It’s telling that my most poignant memory of that apartment isn’t Patti but another woman, the young mother who lived upstairs. (I never actually saw her but imagined—given her heavy step and labored breathing—a porky Medusa.) She had a newborn son and every night, seven days a week, when her demon seed had finally stopped his own screeching, she’d warble Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” to him. And not in a murmur, either, but at the top of her terrible voice:
’Cause you, you light up my life
You give me hope to carry on
You light up my days
And fill my nights with song.
It can’t be wrong
When it feels so right
’Cause you … you light up my life.
I died a little every time she did it, reminded myself that this was why I didn’t own a gun. Managed to ignore it the first few days, then resorted to verbal pleas and finally, in desperation, pounding the ceiling with my fists.
Most women would have been intimidated by a guy tall enough to reach the ceiling but not Debby Jr.: the more strenuously I objected the louder she’d bellow until my only hope was the baby’s head exploding before mine. All the while I’d be half crazy from my Western Union shifts (easily the most stressful job I ever had, which—coming from me—is saying something).
Even a regular person couldn’t have slept with a schedule like mine, doing Swing one night, Days the next, then maybe a couple Graveyards before starting over again (with only rare days off), and I was a lifelong insomniac. I once estimated that, except when I passed out (which wasn’t nearly often enough), I was lucky to average thirty hours of sleep a week.
So I’d sit in the living room with my back against the wall, wrung out from arguing with illegal aliens and co-workers all day (a group of the former even jumped me after work once but were, fortunately, no bigger than children), begging the heavens for just five minutes of peace while Debby Jr. wailed.
This went on as long as Patti and I lived there. (Couldn’t she at least have learned a new song?) I used to daydream about that son of hers, imagine him grown and homeless; he’s shuffling across an overpass when he hears “You Light Up My Life” from a passing car and leaps to his death.
I only survived it because: (1) I’d learned to appreciate torture in the d.t.’s; and (2) it was all my own doing, anyway. When a marriage (like adopting a dog or eating peyote) was just an experiment, something you wanted to try before you died, the chances of success were slim. (Throw in moving to Los Angeles and they dropped to virtually nothing, particularly when your wife was a cult slave.)
Which had, ironically enough, been another part of my nuptials calculation, i.e. was a Scientology marriage (like the “religion” itself) even a real thing? Surely it was too farcical for the authorities to recognize, particularly when, with no property but the clothes on our backs, a portable typer and two beater cars, we had no property to divide.
Well, there was Percy, of course. I adored that little dog but he’d been Patti’s idea to begin with, so when we did “divorce” (i.e. hugged and pretended the nuptials had never happened), I agreed to let her and her new beau (another Hubbard devotee) keep him.
They put him in the backyard of their rental home, where he was promptly stolen and never seen again. In the meanwhile I’d moved into a Scientology halfway house, where the other tenants were either new or disgruntled cult members and the “studio apartments” were the size of small bedrooms.
It suited me perfectly. I even conjured up the initiative to take word processing classes and leave Western Union behind, but sobriety? That was still a bad fit.
When a marriage (like adopting a dog or eating peyote) was just an experiment, something you wanted to try before you died, the chances of success were slim.
How else to explain the first Mrs. High, much less the second? Her name was Donna and, not only was she my “Scientology Ethics” teacher, but a member of the “Sea Org” (she’d signed over her next billion lifetimes to Hubbard) and regulations dictated she couldn’t sleep with me unless we were married.
This (along with her year-old daughter) made the calculation a tough one, but I was too horny to think straight and decided that, not only had my marriage to Patti been too brief for experimental purposes but legally, at least, it really hadn’t happened, so why not try again with Donna? What did I have to lose?
I didn’t pose it like that to her, of course. It was enough that she believed those prior nuptials were bona fide and insisted (usually while jerking me off in the front seat of my car) that I make my divorce from Patti official.
This could have been a deal breaker, as I was too broke to hire a lawyer and too lazy to fill out the requisite forms myself.
Then it came to me (one of the few intuitive flashes I remember while sober), i.e. what’s the best way to end an imaginary marriage?
Why, Tijuana, of course … hell, everything was for sale down there. So I drove to the border one Sunday morning, crossed into Tijuana and stopped at the first Get Your Divorce Here! shack.
Exited with a sheaf of official-looking papers an hour later. (They were in Spanish, of course, so could have been restaurant reviews for all I knew.) The honorable Julio Lopez, Esq. was beside me, flush with the seventy-five bucks I’d given him for his “services.”
“Say, Julio,” I said, waving the documents at him. “These aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, are they?”
“Oh no, Señor,” he winked, “I assure you they’re very real.”
Perfect! I thought. Just like the marriage.
They were enough to convince Donna, anyway, and that was all I cared about. We were married by a first-time Scientology Minister, and after we’d signed the license she stamped it and handed it over to me.
“Now the marriage is only legal if you mail this within seven days, Wilson,” she said. “You can do that, can’t you?”